Daily Archives: 29 September 2009

#39 “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” (Stevie Smith)

And yet, the energy of “Kubla Khan” was limited by an accident. Coleridge said that the poem came to him in a dream (literary critics believe opium was involved).

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

The “person from Porlock” has ever since figured, in literary history, as somewhere between the type of all importunate people who prevent academics from getting their “own work done” at best, and history’s greatest monster at worst. After all, if the Person hadn’t come barging in, Coleridge might have given the world the director’s cut of “Kubla Khan,” which might be all the way up at #20 on the Countdown today instead of the lousy #40 where I have it.

But every reaction brings about a counter-reaction. What if the person from Porlock came just in time? That is the suggestion of Stevie Smith’s wonderful “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.”

This is the one tactical placement on my Countdown. I wanted to include Stevie Smith, and this is the poem of hers that I think most highly of. But it makes no sense to place it before “Kubla Khan,” and if I wait to include it much after, it’s not going to be as effective, either.

It’s a poem about work, and creativity, and rationalization, and excuses, and the wonder of language, and mystery, and depression, and people’s expectations of us, and a little bit about faith, and there’s even a cat in it. Of all the poems in the Countdown, it may be the most eclectic in style. It starts with a free-verse meditation; it continues with a lyric section in couplets; it meditates again; and it ends with a meta-meditation, almost in prose, about whether it was right to write the rest of it. As a poem about writers’ block and its attendant insecurities, it ends brilliantly with thoughts about such insecurities, and our guilt for even entertaining them.

But wait, my department Chair is at my door . . .

#40 “Kubla Khan” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is one of the most famous, and most frequently reprinted, poems of the past two hundred years. (Well, 212 to be exact, but close enough). By ranking it 40th on the Countdown, I hope I’m not disrespecting Coleridge. At times I’m pretty sure I could turn the Countdown on its head and go from 1 to 64 without noticing the difference; the poems are all that good.

Nevertheless, I am not including anything on this Countdown just because it’s historically important and nine out of every ten English professors would expect to see it here. “Kubla Khan” is not just famous for being famous. It’s a great achievement in language, carried out with the maximum possible panache.

“Kubla Khan,” as is apparent a few lines in, lies in the realm of fantasy literature. There was a historical Kubla Khan, of course. Wikipedia, which knoweth all things, situates Kubla (or “Kublai” Khan) as the Mongol emperor of China who ruled, at one point in the 1200s, one-fifth of the inhabited globe. For all that, he would have made little mark on Western culture. But Kubla Khan was the emperor who met Marco Polo – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Kubla of the poem has almost exactly zero to do with the historical Kubla, to say nothing of the fact that if you tried to get on a first-name basis with Kublai Khan, he would probably have had you disemboweled. Coleridge’s speaker imagines a compound that has become the type of all crazy paranoid rulers’ private residences. “Xanadu” was the name that Orson Welles used for the obscenely excessive Kane estate in Citizen Kane. Michael Jackson had Neverland, Elvis had Graceland, Nixon had San Clemente, William Randolph Hearst (the model for Kane) had San Simeon.

And every such “pleasure dome,” it goes without saying, is built on a “romantic chasm” which is quite its opposite. You cannot have the greatest artificial pleasure except by contrast with the greatest natural dark energy. Opposites clash in “Kubla Khan” in a style reached only by great movie epics and apocalyptic graphic novels.

And the whole is done in mellifluous language at a breakneck pace. One of the things I admire greatly in the best poetry, and that I think is indispensable from artistic greatness, is energy (what Coleridge’s friend William Hazlitt called “Gusto”). “Kubla Khan” has energy to spare, and that energy has fueled any number of later compositions in language and in stone.

#41 “Jenny Kissed Me” (Leigh Hunt)

Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” may be the shortest poem on the Countdown: eight lines, and short lines, at that. The three-word title of the poem pretty much sums up the plot. What more do we learn? That Jenny was sitting before the kiss, and jumped up to accomplish it. That the speaker is otherwise fairly defeated by life. That “Time,” personified, keeps a “list,” and loves to put good things down on it. I don’t think this is one of those “My Favorites” lists, though. It think it’s one of those lists with the theme “I’m going to see that you suffer.”

Why is this a good poem at all, let alone the 41st-greatest poem in the contemporary English language? One of the values that I perceive in so many of these Countdown poems is compression. Huge issues, huge emotions, huge aspects of existence are condensed by great poets into the fewest possible words. Sometimes this results in poetry both compressed and oblique, poetry that talks around feelings too powerful to meet head-on. But sometimes, as in “Jenny Kissed Me,” we see the fullest possible lyric payoff in as direct a manner as possible, with the most straightforward expression.

And it’s the expression of an overwhelming lyric emotion: desire. Or rather, joy at being desired. The speaker of the poem scarcely says what he feels about Jenny. (He doesn’t even identify his own gender, though the poet was male.) But there is one thing that we can’t deny: Jenny kissed him.

And she jumped from a chair to do so. The wording here is so economical, so unexpected, and yet so precisely emotional. I can’t think of another phrasing that would be so inevitable and unmistakable. It conveys a visual image, and also a whole story and backstory in exquisite miniature. Jenny jumps; the excitement of rising to the kiss sends her entire body into motion. No thought is involved, and perhaps the thoughts in the case were opposite ones. I’m going to sit here calmly and shake his hand when he gets in. No, the hell with that.

“Put that in.” If Time is making up an extra-careful list of good things he gets to take away from us, Jenny’s kiss is among the brightest. And the poem confronts the ravages of time by the simplest method possible. Yes, everything will be taken away from us. But it has already been. By writing the good things on his list, Time destroys them. But he also makes an indelible record of them. Poetry is the most ineffaceable way of preserving that record.